Val McDermid

Little, Brown, £20

Review by Susan Swarbrick

WAY back in the mists of time, long before she was an award-winning author hailed as the “Queen of Crime” by her millions of loyal readers, Val McDermid had another mantle: intrepid reporter.

McDermid spent 16 years working as a journalist in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. During that time, she covered big stories including Hillsborough, Lockerbie, the so-called "Yorkshire Ripper" case and the aftermath of the Moors Murders.

Her latest novel, 1979, returns to that world as told through the eyes of protagonist Allie Burns, an ambitious young reporter on the fictional Glasgow-based newspaper the Daily Clarion. It marks McDermid’s first new series in almost two decades.

Like many authors, McDermid had faced a quandary: how do you write about contemporary life when the upheaval and uncertainty being wreaked by a global pandemic is akin to walking on ever-shifting sands?

The answer? You jump in a time machine and set the dial for 1979. When I spoke with McDermid last year, she was getting stuck into research at the National Library of Scotland, perusing back copies of the Glasgow Herald (as this paper was then known) and the Daily Record.

“The weird thing is I was actually working on the Daily Record in 1979 and, bizarrely, I keep coming up against stories with my byline that I have no recollection of writing,” she laughed.

Going through old newspaper cuttings helped her to frame what people were writing and talking about in 1979, during the so-called “Winter of Discontent”, as well as what was in fashion, being watched in cinemas and on TV. Even the price of a can of lager.

It also served to jog her memory about the kind of stories that McDermid, as a young female reporter in a male-dominated newsroom, was regularly asked to cover. “Bloody miracle babies,” she said. “I was always getting miracle babies to do because I was a woman.”

The Herald:

Funnily enough, 1979 opens on that very theme: a baby born on a stranded train stuck in a snowdrift somewhere between Linlithgow and Falkirk High.

As luck has it, Allie Burns is on board with her colleague Danny Sullivan and together they witness the infant’s impromptu arrival into the world. Can you guess who has to write up the story when the pair finally hotfoot it back to Glasgow?

But Allie doesn’t plan to pen tales about miracle babies forever. She is intent on smashing the glass ceiling of the boys’ club within newspapers.

A hot lead exposes the murky goings-on of a dodgy tax evasion scam. Then Allie sniffs out an even bigger scoop: a home-grown terrorist threat linked to a bid for Scottish independence. As twisting plots go, McDermid hasn’t held back. It will grip you to the very last page.

Is 1979 a cracking read? I would say it is one of McDermid’s best. Sure, that could be partly down to the prism through which I am viewing it – a journalist reading a book about journalists and, well, journalists are nothing if not vain etc – but believe me, it is a belter.

Reading it is like swaddling yourself in a thick blanket of nostalgia and being transported to a bygone time – one where people listened to mix tapes on a long drive rather than Spotify on shuffle. There is no incessant white noise of social media.

Payphones are used rather than burner mobiles. Journalists bash out their stories on typewriters. Everyone in the newsroom smokes.

Editors are fire-breathing dragons. The famed “hairdryer treatment”-style of dressing-room dressing-downs by football managers has nothing on these guys. “See the pair of you, you shouldn’t be allowed out without a f****** nanny and toddler reins,” is one such diatribe within 1979.

A discerning eye for detail and the ability to root out tantalising nuggets that others might overlook has become a hallmark of McDermid’s writing. Ditto her inimitable sense of humour and knack for dry one-liners.

“You look more like a plain-clothes polis that buys her suits in the C&A sale than a hotshot reporter setting the news agenda,” imparts Rona Dunsyre, a colleague of Allie’s after whisking her off for a well-lubricated lunch at Rogano and some friendly fashion advice.

Another nice touch is a character who regular readers of The Herald Magazine may recognise as a tip of the hat to the late, great Fidelma Cook.

This isn’t McDermid’s first book with a journalist at its heart. The six-strong Lindsay Gordon mystery series helped launch her career with debut novel Report for Murder in 1987.

The difference? McDermid was finding her voice with Lindsay Gordon. Allie Burns is the work of a writer at the peak of her powers.

1979 by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown, £20 on Thursday, August 19. 

Val McDermid: The Winter of Our Discontent is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday. edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/val-mcdermid-the-winter-of-our-discontent

For full details of all her events, visit http://edbookfest.co.uk



The Herald: Scottish Crime Wave authors (clockwise from top left) Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, Mary Paulson-Ellis and Ambrose Parry (Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman)Scottish Crime Wave authors (clockwise from top left) Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, Mary Paulson-Ellis and Ambrose Parry (Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman)

Val McDermid's new novel, 1979, shares a publication date with three further major new releases by celebrated writers, Doug Johnson, Ambrose Parry and Mary Paulson-Ellis. This crime-writing explosion is celebrated at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Summer Crime Wave, in which all four authors talk about their books.


The Herald:

It is no secret that we are big fans of Doug Johnstone’s series about the Skelfs, three generations of Edinburgh women running a funeral director business with a sideline as private investigators. Following on from A Dark Matter and The Big Chill, both published last year, the much-awaited third novel, The Great Silence (Orenda, £8.99), is out on Thursday (August 19). Straddling the worlds of death and detective work, it is domestic noir at its finest, with shrewd observation, warmth and darkly comic undertones.


The Herald:


Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym of husband-and-wife powerhouse writing team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. They penned their first novel together, The Way of All Flesh, in 2018, followed by The Art of Dying a year later. Their third collaboration, A Corruption of Blood (Canongate, 14.99), is published on Thursday, August 19. It draws on consultant anaesthetist Haetzman’s research into the work of James Young Simpson, who discovered the anaesthetic effects of chloroform in 1847.


The Herald:

Mary Paulson-Ellis has carved a niche with her compelling dual-timeline detective novels about the secrets of those who die alone and with no next of kin. The mesmerising 2016 debut, The Other Mrs Walker, and powerful second novel, The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, take place between present-day Edinburgh and darker days in the early 20th century. Paulson-Ellis publishes her highly anticipated third book, Emily Noble’s Disgrace (Mantle/Pan Macmillan, £16.99), on Thursday, August 19.

Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, Ambrose Parry & Mary Paulson-Ellis: Summer Crime Wave is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday evening (August 19).

Visit edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/doug-johnstone-val-mcdermid-ambrose-parry-mary-paulson-ellis-summer-crime-wave

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